Authoritarian governments like China and Iran are increasingly hiring private investigators to surveil and track dissidents living legally in the U.S., according to a Monday report from the New York Times.
Many citizens under authoritarian regimes flee to the U.S. and openly criticize their former governments, leading to their targeting. Federal authorities have identified situations where foreign intelligence agencies enlisted unwitting private investigators to do their work for them in New York, California and Indiana, the Times reported.
One such investigator, Michael McKeever, was hired for a seemingly routine job of surveilling a debtor who owed money in Dubai. In reality, the target was journalist Masih Alinejad, an Iranian woman who has severely criticized the dictatorial regime in her native country.
FBI agents were also surveilling her as part of an investigation into an Iranian plot to kidnap the woman, according to the Times.
“Your client is not who you think they are,” an agent told McKeever, according to NYT. “These are bad people, and they’re up to no good.”
China has engaged in similar efforts, reportedly enlisting a former NYPD officer turned private investigator in a plot to coerce a New Jersey man to return to China.
China has also turned to less subtle methods of cracking down on citizens overseas. The country has opened dozens of “overseas police service stations” in Europe and the U.S.
The stations ostensibly target citizens suspected of committing fraud and other crimes while outside of China, but the police forces have “persuaded” roughly 230,000 citizens to return to China, according to Safeguard Defenders, a human rights watchdog that released a report on the issue last month.
“These operations eschew official bilateral police and judicial cooperation and violate the international rule of law, and may violate the territorial integrity in third countries involved in setting up a parallel policing mechanism using illegal methods,” the group wrote.
Most of the police stations are located in Europe, though there are four in North America. Three are situated in Toronto and the fourth is in New York City.
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